Is it time?

A few weeks ago, Professor Frank Larkin reported for the L H Martin institute that staff-student ratios in Australian higher education are a bit worse than are commonly claimed.

What makes this sensitive is the government’s ambitious target of 40% of 25-34 year olds being degree qualified by 2020. There’s some debate about the viability of this target, and the details are vague on exactly how this will raise national productivity unless we’re really prescriptive on what those undergraduates study, and what they go on to do. But for the time being, this is the cunning plan to keep Australia economically fabulous, and its success depends on Australian families believing in the value of supporting their adult children for a further three or four years while they struggle up the final stretch of the education mountain, acquiring a hefty personal debt as they go.

The complicated strain this places on families is significant, given that so many Australian undergraduates live at home, while their friends start working, or travelling, and generally getting on with their future lives. University students often talk about feeling stuck in a failure-to-launch scenario, going through the motions of something that feels too much like high school, while balancing part-time, seasonal, insecure employment with the social constraints of life at home with the parents.

As families are right now in the process of deciding whether to not to go through with this, the risk is that public debate over staff-student ratios is like the ongoing PR crisis about unflued gas heaters in school classrooms: even if your children and their teachers aren’t personally exposed to this problem, repeated discussion of it does wear out your confidence in the overall system. Primary school? Isn’t that where the heaters make everyone sick? University? Isn’t that where they’re all sitting on the floor and no one knows their name?

This seems to be why there’s been a strong counter attack this week, in the form of a background briefing paper issued by the Group of Eight.

What’s the real difference of opinion? Professor Larkin’s position is that the dramatic increase in student numbers since 2000 hasn’t been covered by an increase in permanent academic positions, but rather by a diversion to research-based appointments matched with a supplementary hiring of casual teachers. According to his altered formula, staff-student ratios are now at 1:34.1 across the sector, and the assumption is that the quality of the undergraduate experience is therefore also declining.

The G08 position is, more or less, “Oh no it’s not.”

Larkins asserted that universities have been pursuing their own research interests above all else and students are being short-changed as a consequence. He alleged that universities have been reclassifying academic staff in order to game assessments of research quality. He claimed that “the coursework student to T&R + TO staff ratio was concerningly high at 34:1 in 2010”.

The available evidence does not support his claims.

At 16 pages of charts and graphs, you can see how this could drag on.  In terms of reassuring the primary audience who might have been fooled into believing Australian undergraduate education is going to hell in a handbasket, the Go8 paper is at particular pains to point out that if there has been a tiny shift towards research only (RO) positions, matched by a really minuscule increase in casualisation to take up the teaching shortfall, then this is because a) research is very difficult and b) there’s more research being done, especially by G08 universities who win all the grants and c) there’s more emphasis being placed on research by rankings, and altogether, this may result in

the offer of RO appointments [as] a mechanism for attracting and retaining academic talent in the increasingly competitive environment, even though it may not align with the raison d’être of a university.

Well, no kidding.

The second part of the PR struggle over whether or not Australian universities are adequately staffed is casualisation. The Go8 euphemise this as “university staffing flexibility in times of intensifying competition”, and find it to be at surprisingly low levels, a fact they attribute to stroppy unions. Using a different formula, they find the overall staff-student ratio to be 1:16.8 in the G08 and 1:24.4 out in the wildzone where the rest of us work.

The confusion for those of us trying to figure out which of these sets of numbers is right is that university calculations don’t count “actual casuals” (this is the strangely poignant technical term) as actual people, but as fractions of imaginary full-time staff positions. Both teaching load and teaching labour in higher education involve smallish chunks of discrete human activity: a student sitting in a lecture here is a fraction of the nominal time allocated to a class which is a fraction of that student’s imaginary full-time student life; a teacher grading papers for a different class over there is also a nominal fraction of something.

All these bits and pieces are reaggregated into full-time equivalence in order to be able to tallied against each other, and it’s on this basis that we reassemble the founding myth of full-time students taught by full-time staff. But in reality, students are radically economising on the time it takes to be taught (and lecture attendance is the blunt measure of this), and both permanent and casual academics are volunteering more and more of their own time to compensate for this. So the myth of full time anything doesn’t seem like a solid starting point.

However, beyond the practical consequences of casualisation for institutions, and even beyond the impact on individuals whose personal and professional lives are being bonsaied by this strategy, there’s another economic factor that doesn’t get the consideration it deserves.

Our growing contingent workforce includes those who represent the apex of government investment in education. They are in every other respect the stellar success stories of higher education retention, having stuck with us all the way up to PhD level. Now they’re mostly not living at home (although some are), but they’re trying to raise families of their own, and the more teaching they do to help universities maintain their flexibility “in times of intensifying competition”, the worse their real career prospects become.

So while we’re making charts, perhaps we could apply some scrutiny to the fact that higher education’s current structural dependence on flexibility is confining many of its own most successful research trained alumni to the prospect of long-term job precarity as casual teachers—or to costly retraining for a whole other career. This seems like the exemplary case of a bad return on investment for all concerned.

(The posts that this week that have got me thinking about all this come from Dean Dad on course overloads, Ferdinand von Prondzynski on the business principles of retention and attraction, Lee Skallerup on the need to take action for adjunct colleagues, Jonathan Rees who is as worried as anyone about the structural problems of the academic labor market, and Stephen Matchett on the Go8’s dispute with Larkin’s report. But there are now plenty of others calling for advocacy on this matter, including the excellent New Faculty Majority.  I think, to use an Australian phrase, it’s time.)

3 thoughts on “Is it time?

    1. Hi Vanessa, welcome. Yes, I saw the news of your summit on your website; that’s excellent. Will you be streaming any of it? I think one of the complex issues for higher education is that adjunctification/casualisation is structured very differently in different parts of the global system (we don’t have the course overload option that seems to see TT and adjuncts compete, as Dean Dad’s post suggests, for example), but there are some powerful common features. I hope we can start to work together to address some of them. Will NFM work beyond the US in the future, do you think?

  1. Everyone interested in these issues should also read James Surowiecki’s “The Financial Page: Debt By Degrees” in the November 21, 2011 New Yorker, p. 50.

    –Ol’ Mose Harper.

Conversation welcome here